Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Food Heaven

If you want to make yourself sad, just sit and think about all the food that you loved that for some reason or another you can't get anymore. The restaurant closed. The relative who made that special something died and you don't have the recipe. They took it off the menu. They don't sell it anymore. If only you could taste it one more time. If only you could go back. I was talking about Mickey shaped frozen pizza and Chips Ahoy sandwich cookies with my mom and how they taunted us with them and took them away, and she said off-hand that they would be waiting for me in food heaven. So then I sat and thought about all the foods throughout my life that have passed on. In nearly every case, I didn't know our last meeting was to be our last. But I hope they're all happy in food heaven, sitting on a table all together, just waiting for me. Here's who I hope is there:


The fried chicken, macaroni salad, and prawns at Luau Gardens

Ah...Luau Gardens. So strange...So sentimental for me. It was a Chinese buffet in Sacramento with Hawaiian theming. For me and my parents, it was a place where we really liked the food and we could sit by ourselves and do our thing; make weird jokes, have weird conversations, eat as much food as we wanted. I never understood the Hawaiian aspect to it all. Perhaps there is a logical explanation. The owner was from Hawaii? There's a large Chinese population in Hawaii? There were fake birds reminiscent of the Tiki Room at Disneyland hanging in the middle of the ceiling, a fish tank (both of which were very appealing to me when I was in grade school), and later after they remodeled and repainted a bit, these giant paintings of whales and island scenes. And they would always play Hawaiian music. But then one day, we were eating there, and we were told that they were about to close. When I looked into it, it wasn't because business was bad, but because the younger members of the family wanted to focus more on their restaurant downtown, which I'm sure is much more hip then our beloved, strange, Luau Gardens. And so my favorite foods there have passed on to food heaven. I miss their brandy fried chicken, this macaroni salad that was in their little American section that for some reason tasted particularly good, and their fried prawns. So I hope food heaven includes a plate from Luau Gardens with the chicken, and the macaroni salad and the prawns.

(The picture above is me circa 2005 at Luau Gardens in an intentionally cheesy pose. There's the brandy fried chicken and behind me is the bottom part of one of those giant island pictures.) 


Stuffed vegetable rigatoni at Johnny Carino's

I adore the bread at Johnny Carino's and I looked forward to getting a house salad with my entrée even though house salads aren't a special item because theirs was prepared and put together so nicely. Their entrées, however, were not so special to me, all accept for this one called stuffed vegetable rigatoni. It had the rare distinction of being vegetarian and being so satisfying that I wasn't thinking, "if only there were a little chicken in this...". The irritating thing was that it was the one thing I really liked there, and then one day I went and it was no longer on the menu. It's not that their other entrées were terrible, but they didn't come close to my stuffed vegetable rigatoni. Out of all the things to take, they took that one. Now that location is closed, so if I want my bread, I've gotta go to Fairfield. But while my bread and salad may be far away, my stuffed vegetable rigatoni died a long time ago, so I hope it's waiting for me in food heaven too.


Mickey Mouse shaped frozen pizza

The Mickey Mouse shaped frozen pizza stands out more in my memory because our time together was so fleeting. The thing about being at home and wanting something to snack on is that sometimes you just can't eat another sandwich. Sometimes you want something warm, cheap, and fast. Mickey Mouse pizza could have been a freezer staple for those times. It was small and it lacked that funky frozen pizza flavor. And what a nice pick-me-up to have it be shaped as it was. But no. It was bought, enjoyed, and never to be found again. My mom and I would look around in the grocery store and it was gone. A novelty item I suppose, or maybe it wasn't selling well, but on any account, it's made it's way to food heaven. Was it better to have loved Mickey Mouse shaped frozen pizza and lost it then to never have loved it at all? No. In this case, ignorance would have been bliss.


Chips Ahoy sandwich cookies

My time with Chips Ahoy sandwich cookies was longer than my time with the Mickey Mouse pizza, but still fleeting. It was two little Chips Ahoy cookies with white cream in the middle, and my mom and I liked them quite a bit and got used to buying them. I even remember there being commercials for them. You think with grocery store items that they will be there forever. The expectation of longevity makes it that much more disappointing when you go to buy something you liked and it isn't there. I had them for somewhere around a year, and that was all. Sometimes I still look in the cookie aisle for them in vain. Alas and alack, they must have gone on to food heaven.


Lyon's hamburgers

I have had plenty of good burgers and of varying kinds. Different toppings. Different sauces. Thick bacon dripping with maple syrup. Onion strings. Sweet Jack Daniels BBQ sauce. Mango infused BBQ sauce. Cheese skirts. However, when I was little, I remember before any of these other things, how good these hamburgers were at Lyons, just a basic family restaurant in Yuba City. If I had one today would I still think it was as good? I'd like to think so. It was just the basics; onion, tomato, lettuce, American cheese. The meat had good flavor. The bread was really good. I highly doubt that bread was made there, but the bread they were buying for those hamburgers was what made it stand out. So if me and mom were running errands and wanted to eat out, getting a hamburger at Lyons was a staple for a long while. You knew they'd be good and you knew they'd be satisfying, because what could be better than a good hamburger? Eventually, we noticed the hamburgers changed in quality. The bread was not the same. The meat was bland. Whether it was new owners, new cooks, or an endeavor to cut costs, those hamburgers we had loved were gone, and eventually Lyons was gone too. But then maybe that's what they get for taking away those hamburgers.


"Trio" at Bel-Air

"Trio" is a name me and my mom made up for these three different salads from the deli at Bel-Air that we would get that somehow tasted good eaten together. They were something called Mediterranean orzo salad, which had tomatoes and capers and had good seasoning, California chicken salad, which was chicken salad with red grapes and almonds, and creole potato salad, which had a deep yellow color because of the creole seasoning and was a little spicy. I don't know how we first started getting all three, but it became something we would repeat several times after. And because there was three, we'd just refer to it as "Trio". (and if that makes us sound weird, I guess it's too late to turn back now). We would sit them open on the coffee table, fork in hand and just alternate between them, taking bites. I even had a certain order I liked to sit them in. I don't know why it worked so well but it did. But then Bel-Air decides to update their recipes and their deli selections. The Mediterranean orzo salad survived intact, but the California chicken salad got a new name, "Golden State chicken salad", and a new recipe. And the creole potato salad is nowhere to be found. And Trio is just not Trio without the combination of favors that we had before. So our little ritual has been ruined. So in food heaven, I hope Trio is there, and in their proper order.


Deli sandwiches at Food for Less

I remember getting these deli sandwiches when I was four, five, six years old. I can't even remember when Food for Less stopped making them they way they had. Was I eight? Ten? I do remember these sandwiches though. Sometimes you're in the grocery store, and you buy something for yourself to eat when you get home so you don't have to cook. And some of those times, you grab a deli sandwich. Just to highlight the goodness of those deli sandwiches of long ago, now when me and my mom are grocery shopping and we grab a sandwich to eat when we get home, it takes some work to make it good. I get a footlong, because it's cheaper to get one of those and cut it in half, I take it home and rearrange the meat and cheese to make it more even, slather it with mayonnaise and mustard, cut up a tomato. But those old deli sandwiches from Food for Less needed no extra attention. I think what made them good is that they came already slathered with mayonnaise and mustard. They weren't all that different, but somehow they were so much better, and the fact that they are buried in my childhood makes the why they were better a bit mysterious. A funny anecdotal memory to go along with it is this time, when I was like five years old, when I laid one of these sandwiches down in the house and we couldn't find it anywhere. We determined that if it had fallen in a strange place, we would have smelled it eventually and that the only plausible explanation for the lost sandwich was that our dog had eaten it. It would be nice to have one of those sandwiches in food heaven.


Hot Dogs at Hal's Grub Steaks

Hal's Grub Steak (what an odd name for a place) was a western themed walk-up and sit-in casual restaurant with a limited menu. Steak, chicken, hot-dogs and hamburgers,  chili, fries, cole-slaw, maybe potato salad. It had been there a long time. My mom was a teenager when she first started going there, and it lasted until I was in grade school. Maybe the owners just got too old to keep it going if one were to guess by the aged waitresses. Since I was little, I took unusual delight in the chairs there. I didn't know they were called captain's chairs. I just liked how they curved around in the back, which was low, and made a half-circle. More than that, I loved this little yellow pin-ball, arcade game, for lack of a better description, that was there. It wasn't electronic at all. It was just a sort of bb gun mounted towards a western town scene, all under glass. You aimed at the little outlaws that were in the doors and windows. You hit one, a new one would pop up in a window, then between the swinging  doors, then in the other window, then in the door. You missed, you didn't get to move on to the next one. My goal was to get all of them. Every visit was an opportunity to see if there was yet another little outlaw that I'd never seen before to shoot. But about the food, if Hal's Grub Steak still existed today, I would probably have enjoyed their chili, or have gotten a hamburger more often. But because we went when I was little, I enjoyed getting these footlong hot dogs and had no appreciation for chili. The hot dogs were good, but I remember the BBQ sauce being especially good. The BBQ sauce and the ketchup sat on the table in these little squeeze bottles, so I had a routine of mixing them together to make a sauce for my fries, and if memory serves me right, I put them both on the hotdog. Maybe more than the hot dogs, what I really miss is that BBQ sauce. But in food heaven, I don't just want a bottle of sauce sitting there, I want something to put it on, and those hotdogs were very good. That little western pinball machine can sit next to the table of all the long gone foods waiting for me in food heaven. And maybe a whale picture from Luau Gardens.

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